After decades of being served by “Roving Rabbis”—rabbinical students sent by Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters to traverse the state each summer—Mississippi is poised to become the 49th state in the union to have its own full-time Chabad presence.

Rabbi Akiva and Hannah Hall—and their eight-month-old daughter, Leah—have just signed the lease for what will be both their home and a Chabad House serving the Jewish people of southern Mississippi.

“Our plan is to serve mostly the Gulf Coast, as well as some of the communities further north,” explains 24-year-old Rabbi Hall, who was appointed as Chabad emissary to southern Mississippi by Rabbi Zelig Rivkin of New Orleans.

“According to the latest figures, the entire state is said to have 1,600 Jewish souls,” explains Rabbi Hall. “We believe the Biloxi-Gulfport area is a most appropriate location because it is a growing tourist area. Since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the area has been rebuilt beautifully, the beaches have been revamped, and vacationers and others are coming more than ever before.

"There are also a fair number of Jews serving on Keesler Air Force Base. After discussing our plans with Rabbi Rivkin, we decided that Biloxi would be the best place for a new Chabad center.”

Biloxi is on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, east of Gulfport. (Map: Google)
Biloxi is on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, east of Gulfport. (Map: Google)

The young rabbi is no stranger to Biloxi. In fact, he grew up there.

“My family had always been quite traditional, celebrating Jewish holidays and really feeling very Jewish. On a visit with relatives in Las Vegas when I was 8, my parents enrolled me in the Chabad-run Gan Israel day camp there. That was my first exposure to a full Torah lifestyle, and I really took to it,” says Hall.

“With time, I grew in my Jewish learning and observance. For many years, I would learn regularly with Rabbi Mendel Rivkin,” program director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana, recalls Hall. “After I graduated high school, I transferred to Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad in Los Angeles. After a year in Morristown, N.J., and another in Brooklyn, N.Y., I was ordained to be a rabbi.”

Citing the teaching of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory—that the goal is to teach and inspire to the degree that the other becomes a "flame that can sustain itself and kindle the flame of yet someone else," Mendel Rivkin commented that he is “most proud to see the Halls becoming a source of Jewish light and warmth.”

Moving in September

Just as he was finishing up his rabbinic degree, he was introduced to Hannah Black, who had grown up in another small Jewish community: Bakersfield, Calif.

“When Rabbi Shmuli and Esther Malka Schlanger opened Chabad of Bakersfield back in 2002, the Black family was at the first event they held," says Hall. “Eventually, they relocated to Los Angeles, so their girls—one of whom is now my wife—could attend Jewish schools.”

A new logo for new emissaries.
A new logo for new emissaries.

After the Halls married in the fall of 2012, they lived in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn before moving to Porterville, Calif., where they served as Judaic teachers for a family who was there for business purposes, but wanted to give their children a Jewish education.

With plans to move just before the High Holidays, the Halls will be focusing on forging new connections and strengthening old ones with the many friends and acquaintances from the rabbi’s childhood. When it comes to networking and looking to meet new families, they plan to hit the ground running. Although the details have yet to be finalized, they project that their first event will be a Sukkot celebration.

On one hand, since the rabbi’s parents still live in Biloxi, he says he looks forward to spending time with his family. On the other, he concedes that both he and his wife were apprehensive about living in an area with so little Jewish infrastructure.

They acknowledge that it won’t be easy at first. Nevertheless, “this opportunity presented itself to us,” says the young rabbi, “and we knew that we were uniquely positioned to do it. We are up to the task!”

Like many young Chabad couples planning on shlichus, the Halls visited the area they would someday call home on Jewish holidays, meeting and connecting with the local Jewish community.
Like many young Chabad couples planning on shlichus, the Halls visited the area they would someday call home on Jewish holidays, meeting and connecting with the local Jewish community.